Marcelo Spina talks piling, flexible composites, the role of precedent and new media in architecture education today, SCI-Arc’s ESTm post-professional degree program, and much more.
images, clockwise from top left: Steve MOODY, “Geode”; YE Li, “Smoke Cloud: Revisiting the Pile”; Peter VIKAR & Al ATAIDE, “Flight Forms”; Amir HABIBABADI, Francisco MOURE, & Pablo OSORIO, “Nube.” All projects completed as part of SCI-Arc’s Emerging Systems and Technologies|Media (ESTm) post-professional degree program.
suckerPUNCH: Could you talk about the studios and seminars you’ve taught in the past year at SCI-Arc?
Marcelo SPINA: There are two main subject matters that I am now interested in: composites and piles. I’m basically channeling these into two different classes, a studio and a research seminar leading to a studio. The two probably have little to do with each other for now, but there is very extensive research to be done in both. “Flexible Composites” includes research we are doing in collaboration with Bill Pearson from North Sails—Bill is someone who I got to know through Greg Lynn, who has worked with him, collaborating on projects such as the 3Di Chair (2011). “Textile Tectonics: Experiments in Flexible Composites” was the class that Bill and I taught together using many North Sails materials—but mainly fiber-based carbon and aramid tapes—and other filament yarns. This class was the material research platform leading to the ESTm (Emerging Systems, Technologies & Media) degree studio that I led over the summer, the final studio of a one-year-long, three-semester program.
sP: Is that “Artificial Clouds?”
MS: Exactly. Textile Tectonics was the advanced material foundation for “Artificial Clouds.” Textile Tectonics aimed to speculate on the future of extreme lightweight materials in architecture by experimenting in the design and fabrication of quasi-rigid (quasi-flexible) objects that blur the threshold between hard and soft, textile and composite. Using a nonrigid material, in the form of tape, that defies core architectonic foundations such as solidity, durability, and permanence, and which exists very much outside the disciplinary culture of tectonics, is quiet a challenge. Much like textile tapestry or contemporary fabrics, these materials posses a materiality of their own, they reflect and transmit light and have the capacity to be at the same time incredibly strong while also amazingly fragile, high performance, and sensual, solid, and textured.
The studio that followed, Artificial Clouds, was the degree project of the ESTm program’s first year and aimed to experiment with robotically deployable clouds to shield large sporting events from direct sunlight. Conceived as a cluster-swarming mass rather than as a monolithic form, the cloud performance went well beyond its pure instrumentality of shading so as to become the very source of iconicity of the event. This final studio implied a natural confluence of three associated lines of design research within the ESTm Program and I should say, SCI-Arc at large. These areas are: material research with a huge emphasis in composites, advanced manufacturing including robotics, and digital design and computation. What’s at stake here is not any of these research lineages alone, but their associated relevance within contemporary culture as they challenge the status of form, new means of representation, and the production of aesthetics.
What we were ultimately looking for with this amalgamation was the production of new images. Not just digital images, but hybrid ones—materially and technologically mediated, and less recognizable images. Working in collaboration with Andrew Atwood, Jonathan Proto, and Brandon Kruysman, we looked not only at the shape, assembly, and formation of these flying “artificial clouds,” but also at the manufacturing process of robotic tape placement necessary to fabricate them, as well as at the simulation of various forms of movement. That way, the material, formal, and manufacturing simulation amounts to a complex aesthetic process, one that can lead to technological and cultural innovation.
Interestingly enough, and to prove the latent potential of these material processes and techniques, we are working with Bill Pearson on a “Textile Room,” a small pavilion to be built for the occasion of the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s upcoming show “A New Sculpturalism: Contemporary Architecture from Southern California.”
The other class was a studio, titled “Tenuous Equilibrium,” that dealt with the problem of random packing and the pile. Moving a step beyond what we now perceive as a process of cohesive formal homogenization in the last two decades, the studio aimed to revisit the organizational and aesthetic possibilities of the pile, toward perhaps a difficult and unexplored regime of inconsistency (incongruity as Jeffrey Kipnis likes to describe). Either a critique or a fresh look at the problem of holism in architectural form, especially at the recent, and not so recent, tendency toward sculpting monoliths, manifold topology, and surface ornamentation assumed as defaults. In my opinion, piling represents the idea of moving beyond the whole, toward the random and the crumbling, stopping just before a total collapse. Again, the title of the studio was “Tenuous Equilibrium.” I’m not sure if that’s a position which I can totally substantiate in terms of a professional practice, but it’s certainly a developing attitude in the context of today’s discipline. So that’s something I’m really interested in and something which will likely appear in subsequent studios, perhaps in more restrained and contextual ways. This being the first studio, I have to say the results were very radical and wild—actually, very beautiful—but often resulting in complete spatial and functional atrophy, so quiet problematic for my own understanding of architecture’s social function within culture at large.
sP: We’ve shown a couple of the projects from “Tenuous Equilibrium”; it seemed like a really exciting studio. We’ve been interested in the last year to see, at a couple of schools, the reemergence of primitives. For example, there were a number of projects from Hernan Diaz Alonso’s students in Vienna that reintroduced the sphere, and in Tom Wiscombe’s studio last spring at SCI-Arc, three or four of the projects used the cube. In the same way, your students’ piling is built up out of a sort of repeated, almost Booleaned primitive. You spoke a little bit on piling as a way to reset or move beyond the whole, but I wonder if you could talk about that formal experimentation, about moving back to the primitive as a way to access something more sophisticated.
MS: I was trying to articulate this in a faculty discussion —with Hernan, Tom, and other people—in terms of what the state of the work today is at a school like SCI-Arc. To be fair, this is also a general symptom of any school that is committed to working in a postdigital era. My point was that the refinement level is so high; that its continuity has almost reached a point of decay. To me, this is a wake-up call to what is relevant and what is not. Digital refinement was an essential development toward a new fineness in the last decade, to consolidate what was very often a formally vague project of the ’90s. While I certainly don’t think that project is dead, I don’t think it’s particularly relevant either. This is where you have to trace a line between what goes on in school and what goes on in our offices. What I mean is we still refine things in our office while we are also working on new projects. The interest in primitives and randomness—which piling is associated to—is, like you said, trying to reset and start anew, aiming to find new kinds of orders and spatial possibilities emerging from a form of rawness. Something that is not so refined, or so reliant on certain preestablished canons of what beauty, composition, form, and mass ought to be.
sP: What about the attitude toward skinning? It seems that color, patterning, and the breakdown of those piled masses were also part of the dialogue within that studio.
MS: I like that a lot, but I’m not so sure I can totally substantiate it. My idea was simple: if you’re going to position an architecture where various volumes interpenetrate in such a random way, you can’t take fenestration as yet another independent layer for expression. So much emphasis on volume and mass leads to restraint in other areas. The intention was to try to do the most with the least and, at the same time, create a sense of transscalar infinity, a sense that as you get close to these buildings, there is always something to pay attention to. This happens at Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House (1957–73), with the tiles over the concrete roof. You wouldn’t know the tiles are positioned at a 45-degree angle unless you were to look closely. By using repetitive components in cellular automata–like mode, we were interested in letting the inherent complexity of the interpenetrated piles play out, in extending this 3-D regime into the 2-D envelope of the building. We did so by either augmenting or attenuating the volumetric features of the mass. Either obfuscating the shadows by implicitly flattening the mass, or by exaggerating features and suggesting breaks where there were none.
sP: What do you see as unique about the ESTm postgraduate program?
MS: ESTm is unique because it is part of SCI-Arc, and because it agglutinates a small, dynamic, and yet widely diverse group of emerging architects, designers, and researchers that, however small, is very much representative of today’s most relevant, contemporary, and technologically progressive design agendas—not just within the US, but in the world at large. ESTm is unique because it looks at the impact of technology on our discipline, considering everything from artistic practices to scientific research and material science. From contemporary aesthetics to advanced manufacturing, from mediated environments to composite materials, and from buildings to robots: there is not a unified approach to design, whether stylistic, intellectual, or otherwise. Take the Robot House, for instance. Whereas every other school knows exactly what it wants to do with this technology, SCI-Arc has been very open ended with both its goals around it and its very setting. Thanks to Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser, and, most recently, the work of Andrew Atwood, Jonathan Proto, and Brandon Kruysman, the work produced at the Robot House has revolutionized the culture of representation, aesthetics, and expression by changing the way we conceive images. My personal mission for ESTm is to couple ideas of computation and robotics with material itself—especially composites—and, as a result of this process, create new materially mediated images. Rather than think of these problems in a complete vacuum, we are trying to align ourselves with advanced manufacturing companies such as North Sails 3Di and 3DL, capitalizing on their material resources and technological edge. At the same time, we are able to take a more radical stance toward what you can do with these materials. Being in Los Angeles gives us the advantage and accessibility to technology. Finally, ESTm tries to instill an entrepreneurial approach to practice and discipline. That’s not only the future, but also where innovation really lies.
sP: We’re sent a lot of videos and imagery from the Robot House. There you have a really sophisticated setup that most architects don’t have access to—certainly not in their office—and if they have indirect access through a shop, someone else is going to run the prototype. Your students have the privilege to explore and experiment with a technology whose potentials for architects aren’t yet fully figured out, without the limitations of having someone else manage fabrication. Now every school has a laser cutter and computers, but here is a really sophisticated piece of equipment that many of us don’t have access to. That said, what do you see the students learning? I know when the Robot House first opened it seemed the big question was: “What can you do with it?” The multirobot setup can have multiple arms moving simultaneously and they can go in a lot of different directions, whereas the laser cutter set things up, did a few operations, and set given trajectories in motion. It seems like the former has more potential to spin off in different directions.
MS: This is more of a focus for people like Greg, or Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser at SCI-Arc (who were the initiators of the Robot House). The multirobot setup—a collaborative environment of small robots rather than a single big robot that stacks bricks on top of each other, carves something, or deposits things—has been a really unique setting and one that is challenging the students, who go in very different directions and, more importantly, do so cultivating design agendas. But I would have to agree with you in that there aren’t yet a lot of direct applications for this technology at the architectural scale of a building, if maybe a lot of applications in the building industry. What is interesting about these robots is that they are moving bodies without any hands, so for anything you want to do, you have to come up with the hand, which is essentially a tool, a so called “end of arm tool.” That piece of hardware requires design itself, let alone fabrication and even engineering. The idea that our students not only have to work through the code that controls these robots, but also have to come up with the tool that will be used and design the sequence by which even more than one tool will be used in the design or simulation of a project . . . It’s completely new in the realm of design. For Artificial Clouds we had our two young faculty members, Jonathan Proto and Brandon Kruysman, along with Andrew Atwood design a simple tool for depositing tape. The result basically mimics the processes of the robots at North Sails using three robots—the first holding an object and capable of moving it around, the second depositing the tape, and the third simply cutting. And so the process can happen on a three-dimensional object. As a result, you have something that is pretty precarious and fascinating, because there were all these problems with the robot that cut the tape only cutting seventy-five percent of the tape; it needed to carry a much sharper knife, which was a bit dangerous. . . . [laughs] . . . But I think the fact that students have to deal with those problems disciplinarily means something completely different. It’s one thing to talk about tooling when you talk about code; it’s another to talk about tooling when you talk about actual tools. I find this process appealing, and a lot of times consuming as well—it’s often very tedious but it engenders a certain proximity with the whole manufacturing process of an object and not just with the object itself.
sP: I don’t know many students, and certainly no undergrads, that go into architecture thinking that they’re going to develop a tool to cut carbon fiber tape. Is there certain baggage that you see the students coming in with, baggage you need to deprogram or get them over, or is there any positive baggage that they bring from their exposure to culture and technology today?
MS: That’s a good question. I don’t know. Maybe because our culture at SCI-Arc is so immersive, and because students want to go there, I would argue there’s not much baggage—or, at least not much I see. I know one student that is going to be coming next year for the ESTm postgrad program that has been working in robotics and has a lot of experience. But ninety-nine percent of the students are completely new to this problem. Some of them, the more “techie” ones, have been following what is going on at SCI-Arc, so they have a bit of an understanding or an interest that goes in a very particular direction. But most everyone else is just looking at it with fresh eyes. That said, there are those coming at it with a more technological attitude, to try and do the perfect thing with a robot, and those coming at it from a more “artistic” side, trying to see what kind of accident the robot can introduce into the design equation, in the hope that they can completely systematize that random accident and produce something entirely new out of it. So I think what we’re seeing is that there are two camps at SCI-Arc: refining the tool to erase the accident and deploying the tool to make the accident the work of art.
sP: We’re also curious if you could talk about how these students, or even those outside of academia, are able to follow the developments you described. That kind of knowledge is something certainly different from 15 years ago, when, without the Internet and blogs, you had less of a sense of what was going on. Certainly if you were outside of architecture, but even within it, there was a certain lag—that the work you saw published in a monograph was work which by that time was probably 10 years old. Nowadays, as soon as students finish a project, or even in the midst of the semester, they upload images online. In the same way, when an office finishes a competition, within a week they’ll start publishing to the Web. So that lag between what students and practices are doing has collapsed, even if just in terms of knowledge, that students now know what’s happening at the front lines of practice. Do you see an interesting shift, given the kind of feedback that happens between the two, that there’s no longer this major divide between the 24-year-old grad student and the contemporary practitioner?
MS: You’re right. I think that the knowledge is widespread just because the work is out there and it’s very quickly disseminated. And it’s also very quickly cast out by other, newer work. In terms of the postgraduate ESTm program (a postprofessional degree similar to M.Arch 2), which is by nature more experimental than the Undergraduate program, there are vestiges of similarity or influence between student and practitioner, but quickly most students tend to go much further than any young practicing architect can. You see influences, but mostly in terms of the defined agenda of the studio. There is also a little bit of apprehension from students about producing work that is too close or too similar to their professors—though it can be close in nature, it’s definitely seen in negative terms if it’s too similar. I think that’s good. Regarding the rapid dissemination of work or the culture of incessant pursuit of the new, I’m not sure what to say about it other than that it’s the world we live in. While I understand it, I don’t think it’s a culture you can cultivate endlessly, since you either run out of things to do or become really confused. I don’t have an answer for that yet. As a result, you have the dilemma of teaching pedagogy while dealing with problems of newness as they relate to some of the canons. It’s definitely a complicated problem, but one that has always been at the center of SCI-Arc.
sP: Do you see history, theory, and precedent as having a role in architectural education today? What role do they play when you talk about the canons or that closeness of students riffing on recent professional projects?
MS: I think they’re very important. I’m an advocate for architectural history and theory where they apply. I would say, more than architectural history, the history of architecture through a history of examples, from drawings to buildings. I think that distinction is important. To that I’d add how setting or context conspires for the validity of many of those examples. Because of its history for forgetting, Los Angeles has never been a natural place for history or theory or discussions associated to them. But history is still important. I think within the canon of architectural history and theory there are always certain clichés that come up—important lessons, let’s say—but there are certain lessons that also seem to be safer for students to look to. And there’s also a kind of trendiness in looking at certain things. So the problem is trying to tease out the original from the copy, the authenticity of the precedent versus it being used as a mask to give your ideas, your thesis, or your project a fake substance emanating from the association to a “usual suspect.” That’s what I find irritating. Everything comes in waves: first you kill history, then you have to look at history, and soon everyone is looking at history. I think you need to find a proper balance.
sP: It’s interesting how those waves come and go, that certain precedents and ideas run through academia and are analyzed or eaten up, and then pass. And that others get skipped over. One of the SCI-Arc projects in “Fresh Punches” is a riff on Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Fuller is an example of someone whose work is getting analyzed and reworked today. Another example we’ve seen used by students a lot on the East Coast is Paul Rudolph—someone was pointing out recently that you never saw any Rudolph in East Coast academia until Philip Johnson died, because he always excluded Rudolph from the canon. For 30 years no one really looked at Rudolph’s projects, because to do so wasn’t cool. But now his work has opened up as another project to move on. Are there are any historical precedents at SCI-Arc that are trending right now, or things that pop up which seem out of the ordinary?
MS: That’s an interesting question. I don’t necessarily find anything wrong with trends, but you have to be able to think ahead of the game and not fall prey to their cliques. In the trend of history and the discipline . . . You don’t need to see 10 projects using Palladio, Terragni, and the nine-square grid as precedent, when in fact all they want to do is affiliate themselves with [Peter] Eisenman to do something they would have done anyways. At SCI-Arc for some reason, and especially in thesis, this is a phenomenon that has happened a lot. I think it’s good that it happened, but now, to paraphrase Sylvia Lavin, maybe there are other more relevant and pressing aspects of the discipline that are not historical in that sense, and which one doesn’t even conceive of as disciplinary today. So I think some precedents have become a kind of refuge or shelter for going back to a past, and even a solution, that we already know very well. I think there has to be an understanding of the discipline that is not necessarily historical all the time. An understanding that many other things—beyond, let’s say, orthographic projection—are already part of the discipline. One has to be critical of anything that is either assumed as dogma or becomes so mainstream . . . if we are to avoid the commonplace.
sP: Do you see any major differences in the contemporary academic discussions, or even differences in pedagogical tendencies today versus when you were in school?
MS: There are so many. I was in school in the US in ’96–97, in the beginning of the “digital” era. If I compare it with a few years later, what we were doing then seemed completely arcane and probably the same could be said every few years. However, there was a spirit of looking for new things, not knowing what they really were. The projects I was doing at Columbia with Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto, Evan Douglis, and Keller Easterling were certainly unfinished. And maybe that’s something to overcome, but I think there was a certain degree of not knowing what exactly was at stake, of being a bit more process driven rather than outcome oriented. That’s something we need to reexplore and something that I’m advocating more and more. Not that the outcome is not important, because I think it is, but ways of working are even more important. These days I’m much more attracted to new forms of rawness, which I believe are new forms of authenticity. I think it’s the only viable avenue to find some much-needed freshness in contemporary discourse—to avoid the cliché and be able to “make the stone feel stony again.” For me, that’s something which has to change. I think it’s beginning to turn around, because the smarter students feel that way; they recognize you can’t always be trained and that their objectives can’t be the same as those of their particular instructor or even a young architect. So they have to try to move beyond that, to think 10 years ahead. That’s a major problem and difference I see.
sP: Is there anything you’re optimistic, interested, or excited about for the upcoming school year, either in your own classes or at the school in general?
MS: As I was saying, I’m trying to have agendas that don’t run on a semester’s cycle. I’ve been teaching for more than 10 years at SCI-Arc and the appetite for the new has gotten to the point where the course that you taught two years ago seems incredibly old now. So I think it’s important to work within larger cycles. These two problems are subjects that I will continue to experiment with, while obviously shifting, readapting, and trying to understand the agendas from a slightly different and more advanced vantage point each time. That’s inevitable if you want to see substantial results and want great work to emerge.